Before Death and Life

Before Death and Life

A friend recently pointed me toward this fascinating piece by Peter L. Laurence about the pre-Death and Life writings of Jane Jacobs. Sometimes it feels like her career began with Death and Life, and she certainly made no effort to associate the book with her previous work. Her first published writings were for Vogue when she was still a teenager, documenting the daily life of residents in various sections of New York City. During the Second World War, she began the activism that would define her later life, advocating for a move of wartime industry to her lagging hometown of Scranton, PA. The rest of her career included a stint with the State Department (where she, like everyone else, was investigated for communist ties) and a long period writing for Architectural Forum. The last two jobs spurred her interest in urban renewal, and she took time off in 1958 when she was forty-five to write Death and Life – and we all know the story from there. 


Cutting the Gordian traffic knot

“Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”
― Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

As the New York State Senate votes on whether or not to lower NYC’s default speed limit to 25mph (from 30mph), I’ve found myself marveling at how difficult it is to make any significant changes to our traffic problem. Sure, the 5mph reduction is a big deal for the city, and will certainly save lives. But it won’t even touch the real issue – private cars are simply not compatible with dense urban areas.

So what’s the solution? It sounds drastic, but I don’t see another option: eventually we’ll have to ban private vehicles from urban areas, starting with central business districts and spreading out through the dense areas of our cities. Obviously this can’t happen in isolation, and any measures of this sort will need to be accompanied by improvements in public transit (although certainly eliminating traffic congestion will do plenty to improve bus or streetcar efficiency and regularity anyways). Again, it’s a drastic measure, but everything else is only pulling at frayed strings. Our traffic problem needs a sword.

It certainly isn’t a new idea. As I’ve noted before, Julius Caesar banned wheeled traffic from Rome’s streets during the daytime. Cities around the world already have car-free zones in increasing numbers (the Wikipedia article on the subject contains an oddly thorough list). The shining star in that category is certainly Venice, whose residents have never seen fit to “modernize” their city to fit the needs of the automobile. Earlier this year, in an emergency effort to reduce smog, Paris banned half of all traffic from their streets.

That last example contains an important lesson. When forced to abandon cars, Parisans still traveled around the city, via the temporarily free public transit system or their bike-share program. If the alternatives are there, people will use them. Sometimes they just need a push first. In Paris, that was oppressive smog. In NYC, it may very well be the sheer level of traffic.

Even in NYC, it’s not a new idea. It was a key point made in the venerable Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she suggested allowing only buses, taxis, and delivery trucks onto city streets. She also addressed an important issue that critics of car-reduction proposals often bring up. It’s usually expressed simply: where will the cars go? They hold it as self-evident that there are a fixed number of cars, and they need to go somewhere. To counter this, Jacobs cites the case of NYC’s Washington Square Park, which was entirely closed to cars in 1958. Critics predicted that millions of new cars would be shuffled onto side streets, creating unbearable traffic problems. This wasn’t the case: the cars “have not noticeably gone anywhere else instead.” It mirrors the phenomena of traffic generation, in which building roads designed to reduce traffic (like an extra bridge over the East River, for example) actually ends up increasing traffic on both. More roads means more traffic, and fewer roads means less traffic.

The eclectic Paul Goodman (described by Wikipedia as being a “novelist, playwright, poet and psychotherapist… social critic, anarchist philosopher, and public intellectual”) wrote regularly on the subject. In a piece with his brother Percival entitled simply “Banning Cars from Manhattan,” they noted:

Manhattan is a world center of business, buying, style, entertainment, publishing, politics, and light manufacture. It is daily visited in throngs by commuters to work, seekers of pleasure, shoppers, tourists, and visitors on business. We have, and need, a dense population; and the area is small and strictly limited. Manhattan does not sprawl. It can easily be a place as leisurely as Venice, a lovely pedestrian city. But the cars must then go.

While there are pieces of their grand vision for Manhattan I disagree with, the fundamental idea is correct. It’s a radical problem that requires a radical solution.

Of course, I know that no candidate who ran on a platform of completely banning private vehicles would ever actually get elected as mayor in a major U.S. city. So what steps can we take in the interim, with this ban as a long term goal? Speed limit reductions are great. Local road closings are great. Prohibitive congestion charges are great. Ensuring that public transit systems provide a quick, comfortable, and reliable experience is even better. Americans like choices, and they can still choose to drive – but we can make sure it is obviously a worse choice. Once the number of private cars is reduced enough, our radical measures will seem a bit more palatable.

Either that, or congestion and smog will inevitably become so bad we will be left with no other option but the radical one. That day is rapidly approaching, and I hope we can head it off before it arrives.

Friday Roundup: Virtual Edition

This post was very nearly called “Friday Roundup: Saturday Edition,” but I pulled it together just in time. Once again I’ve compiled a few of the most interesting pieces on cities, transit, and urbanism I’ve read this week. This week I stuck with a very digital theme, featuring articles ranging from video game cities to a really amazing data visualization of Boston’s MBTA. Work (the one that pays) has ended up in the way of writing this week and it will do so again for the next, but I hope to pick up the pace of writing after that, so if you like what you’ve read so far there is much more on the way.

From Watch Dogs to GTA V, why ‘video games are going to reshape our cities“‘ – from The Guardian Cities

Cities have centered in art for thousands of years, but video games have the potential to take that representation to a new peak – we don’t have to limit ourselves to a static artistic representation of an existing city, or even a magnificent city imagined by someone else’s brain. Imagine the combination of the limitless potential of sim-style games fused with character and story. They will never be able to mirror the full sensory experience of wandering around a new city for the first time, but could provide a truly amazing tribute, a work of art.

Wright believes open-world developers are taking the wrong approach entirely. “You look at GTA, and this amazing world Rockstar have created, and it’s all hand-built,” he says. “An evolutionary process didn’t lead to Los Santos: it was 300 artists studying pictures, building models. They’re just painting a portrait of a neighbourhood. It only gets you so far.” That way of thinking, he says, hinders developers from bridging the gap between static (if beautifully rendered) city backdrops and true, dynamic simulations. Rather, he envisions games that work like evolution: an open-ended, unpredictable system. The challenge is how to make such a thing compatible with the personalised drama, all those sagas of rogue gangsters, cops and assassins so crucial to drawing in the player.

You Might Soon Be Able to Watch Netflix on Amtrak” – from The Atlantic Citylab

A step in the right direction (and one that makes me feel prophetic). It seems like a small thing, but the ability to binge-watch your favorite show during a long train trip could make all the difference for many people when booking travel.

Amtrak first began offering free wifi to riders on its fastest service, the Acela, four years ago. The city-skipping executives who make up that service’s ridership reacted at first with celebration, but by popular account have since soured. In 2012, the wifi received the ultimate in coastal elite rebukes: It was the subject of New York Times trend story. “The wireless service,” the Grey Lady sighed, citing annoyed laptop users, “has become a symbol of the problematic state of train travel in the Internet era.”

Visualizing MBTA Data

A really amazing data visualization project from two WPI grad students. It features full analysis of Boston’s Red, Blue, and Orange lines. In an unsurprising turn of events the MBTA doesn’t have real-time train information for the Green line yet, but they expect it in 2015. If it follows the standard delay of your average Green line train, we can expect it by 2020 – but it might be packed full and you’ll have to wait for the next one.

When you look back at the Marey diagram, the slope of each line tells you how fast a train is going and the time it takes to get between stations. When all of the start and stop times are lined up you can see a drastic variation in the time it takes to get between stops throughout the day. If you have ever ridden the subway during rush hour then you have experienced what the steep lines in the Marey diagram feel like first-hand.

What causes these delays? It’s hard to know for sure, but it appears that number of people riding the subway is a factor.

London Now Has a Robot Sculpture You Can Sleep In” – from The Atlantic Citylab

I have nothing more to say about this.

So what’s it like to stay inside? Photos right now are scarce, but according to the artist’s description it might be something akin to being buried inside a refrigerator box. When the lights are shut off, Gormley intends the space to encourage retrospective thinking, much like a sensory-deprivation tank.


A View from Ft. Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale is a strange city. At first glance it’s a perfect example of the typical sprawling, strip-mall filled, car-friendly Florida city. As I visited last weekend for work my first impression certainly supported this – as we attempted to walk to grab a burrito we had to make our way to the only crosswalk in either direction for half of a mile, then dodge (read: jump over) the hedge that surrounded the shopping complex, preventing anyone without a metal shell from entering the facility.Image

When you travel a bit around the county, a few incongruous elements start to emerge. The whole region is linked by both national inter-city rail (via an Amtrak station) and a comprehensive regional rail system connecting Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Palm Beach. Bike share stations are scattered throughout both the downtown business core and the surrounding suburban counties. Water taxis transport people along Ft. Lauderdale’s extensive canal system. A planned streetcar system will soon connect several major areas of the downtown core. They’re in the process of creating an elaborate greenway system with 370 miles of trails throughout the county. 

So what makes this community of 165,000 in the city proper and over 1.8 million in the county different than dozens of other similar areas spread throughout the southern U.S.?

I’m putting my money on tourism.

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Friday Roundup: What the heck are hipster economics?

I don’t know either, but the top story today (sort of) answers that question. No common theme this week – that first link is on gentrification, the next one is on development through demolition (spoiler alert: it’s not a good idea), and the other two cover traffic laws and trains respectively. These are all subjects that will very likely re-appear in this space for the duration of this blog’s existence.

The Perils of Hipster Economics” from Al Jazeera English

I don’t like the trend of classifying everyone involved in the gentrification process as a hipster (it oversimplifies both a complex process and a non-homogenous social group), so the title of the article gets on my nerves. Other than that, many of the observations are spot-on.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

Is demolition ever the best way to regenerate?” from The Guardian Cities

No matter how you spin it it will never be economically feasible to introduce a load of new development into a community while providing rents that residents affected by demolition can afford. Old buildings are important to cities (thanks Jane Jacobs!), and unless a building is totally impossible to salvage renovation should be the first go-to in this sort of situation.

But why not fix the buildings instead, and let the residents stay? There’s certainly no financial reason to prevent most buildings from being renovated. Architectural consulting firm Gensler found that the Heygate could have been renovated for as little as £14,000 per unit, approximately £17m less than the £44m Southwark has spent on emptying the dwellings – though, of course, then the council wouldn’t receive the £50m Lend Lease paid for the site. So why do we continue to think that the only way to improve an area is to blow it up?

New York’s Big Step Toward Safer Streets for All” from The Atlantic Citylab

Will New York City see zero traffic fatalities in 2024, like Mayor de Blasio is aiming for? Probably not. Will these laws promote safer streets for everyone (even those still in cars)? Definitely.

Cooper’s Law now exists, and it gives the city the power to suspend or revoke the license of a cabdriver who kills or maims a pedestrian with the right of way on a New York street. This may not sound like a radical idea, but as things stood before the council voted to pass the measure last week, taxi drivers who killed or grievously injured pedestrians faced relatively minor penalties and often could head back out on the streets again with little consequence.

All Aboard: The Growth of Global Rail and our Future Cities” from Urban Melbourne

It’s important to remember as we dwell on America’s failed or reduced transit projects that things are getting better.  Twice as many cities with light rail systems since 1995? Not a bad rate of change.

The cities of America and Australia grew mostly in the era when cities were built for automobiles; they are about five times less dense than European cities. Space for car use is much more available. Car ownership and car use grew to a much higher level but is now plateauing and declining. They have reached a limit on the growth of freeways and other urban space (such as parking) for cars, so average traffic speeds have plateaued or reduced.

The urban structure or fabric of the city has prevented any further growth in car use. The only way forward seems to be with alternative transport, especially urban rail.

An unlikely source for lessons in traffic reduction

Hate sitting in traffic? You aren’t alone – Americans spend, on average, 38 hours per year stuck in traffic. We tend to think of congestion as a uniquely modern problem – that wasted time seems like a concrete result of the age of cars, not something with which our pre-industrial ancestors would have had to deal.

As it turns out, traffic plagued cities long before the internal combustion engine became a centerpiece of our society. It was particularly a problem in Ancient Rome. Historians estimate that the capitol city of that great empire peaked at around a million people, and most of its roads were little more than dirt paths. Other than the two main thoroughfares Via Sacra and Via Nova, most streets in the city were too narrow for two carts to pass side by side.

To deal with the problem, emperors took measures that wouldn’t go over well in modern times – soon after he gained control of the city, Julius Caesar banned all wheeled traffic from Rome’s center during the first ten hours of the day (which was twelve hours). Although similar proposals have been tossed around for several major cities, it’s hard to imagine a complete ban on traffic in central Manhattan, Boston, or (perish the thought) Los Angeles within our lifetimes.

Unfortunately for the impoverished citizens of Rome, Caesar’s mandate just confined traffic to the nighttime. The poet Juvenal wrote of the racket:

Insomnia causes most deaths here . . . Show me the apartment that lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions, and that’s the root of the trouble. The waggons thundering past through those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught in a traffic-jam, would rouse a dozing seal—or an emperor.  (Juvenal, Satire 3.232–238)

The restrictions didn’t end with Rome – Claudius took the idea of the daylight ban and spread it throughout Italy, and Marcus Aurelius spread it throughout the empire. Hadrian took aim at nighttime traffic, placing upper limits on the numbers of carts allowed in the city at all.

It’s important to note that traffic problems didn’t end with the crowded streets of urban Rome – it was an issue throughout the empire, even in the well-planned towns and cities with relatively wide streets. The Romans discovered traffic generation millennia before we figured it out. They never mastered the problem, but I’d like to think we have a chance. We have more cars than ever before, but also more options for mass and alternative transit. People will keep moving, but as long as they do it in personal vehicles traffic will continue to choke our cities. The best we can do is provide those alternatives – we may not be the first culture to deal with traffic issues, but if we play our cards right we could be the last.

For more light reading on Roman traffic, check out The Embattled Driver in Ancient Rome (1960). Although not for the faint of heart, Lewis Mumford’s imposing tome The City in History (1961) also covers the subject (and many others) well in Chapter 8, “Megalopolis into Necropolis.”